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Volume 2, No. 12: December 22, 2005

Life in the Azkaban Historical Museum

by Michael Bouman

Recently I wrote about education as a "caring profession."  I wrote, "A person whose work is education is a steward of people.  Changed people are the product of my labors, not changed things.  The story is everything, not the thing in the case, not the house that may be cinders tomorrow.  Stories engage the interest of people.  Stories shape people's ideas of what is possible."

Now I am moved to write about those who care for tangible things.  These are people who try to maintain historic landscapes, buildings, and the things that we try to save in buildings.  They are also everyday people like you and me who inherited piles of old photos, slides, or objects from our grandparents and parents.  I'm prompted to take on this subject because of a report I received from Heritage Preservation last week.  A Public Trust At Risk is a report on the sorry state of America's collections.

If you are a volunteer at one of Missouri's historic houses or small museums, these things will have the ring of truth.  Let's start with overwhelming volume: "More than 4.8 billion artifacts are held in American institutions."  These include a mere 48,000,000 historic objects.  Photographs number in the vicinity of 700,000,000, plus or minus.  Apparently, there are -- get ready for this number -- 1.7 billion rare and unique books, periodicals, and scrapbooks in American institutions. (I think there are nearly that many saved magazines and retail catalogues in my house this very minute, and they didn't survey me!)

I know this strikes you as true.  If you're involved with a local historical society, I'll bet you think you have several million of those historic objects in your garage just now, the museum having run out of storage space years ago.  Right?  And you have several thousand unique photographs of your town in a shoe box on a shelf in the family room, the bedroom closet shelf having already maxed out with half a million disintegrating newspapers from the 19th century.

I don't know if I'm writing a Dave Barry piece here or an essay by one of the Dementors in the Harry Potter stories.  Let's see where this goes, OK?

This is the way it is, Mr. Cronkite:  "26% of our nation's collecting institutions have no environmental controls to protect their collections from damaging effects of temperature, humidity, and light."  You know this is true of your museum, but you don't have the revenue to take care of this problem, nor does anyone else you know.

"65% of collecting institutions have experienced damage to collections due to improper storage."  Yep, I've seen plenty of that.  I'm thinking of the decorative ears of corn eaten down to the cob by unseen critters in the "storage floor" of one museum.  I'm thinking of the hole in one of the windows in that room.  I'm thinking of the mold one of my associates sniffed out as soon as he got there.  It's one thing to know what you ought to do, and another thing to figure out how to get it done.

"80% of collecting institutions do not have an emergency plan that includes collections, with staff trained to carry it out."  The key words here are plan and trained.  Volunteers can do a great deal in an emergency, but you need a plan and you need to know how to act.

This is so depressing, let me change the subject for a minute.  Since July of this year I have devoured all six Harry Potter books, couldn't put them down long enough to enjoy the summer or fall, it seems.  In those stories, the Dementors are the "caretakers," in a manner of speaking, of wizards who are sent to Azkaban Prison.  Their special mission in life is to suck the hope out of a prisoner.  Without hope, most people waste away and perish.  There are no "lifers" in Azkaban.  No one lasts a lifetime there.

When you contemplate the world of woes that accumulates in a collecting institution, you may feel like a prisoner in Azkaban.  You may even sing the folk song, I am a man of constant sorrows from time to time, even if you are a woman. It may be that even if you have a collections management policy, you haven't figured out how to decline the donated objects your museum really doesn't want or need.  You've no place to put them, other than on top of other things or in your garage, and you don't know what you'll ever do with them.  Every item on display was donated by someone.  You validated the donor in the community when you put the item on display.  If you take it down to make room for something else, you'll seem to de-validate the donor, and that won't go over well.

I can see how hopeless this feels, how like a long sentence in Azkaban.  Every day in the museum you feel the bone-chilling breath of the Dementors and sense the hope depart. 

The thing that interests me about this "public trust at risk" report is that it highlights some ways that thinking better can start the turnaround your institution needs.  If "77% of collecting institutions do not specifically allocate funds for preservation," that means that 23% actually do that.  If your institution committed itself to spending even thirty bucks a year on the top priority preservation task, you would be on the winning side of the statistics.

Let's call that thirty bucks a "baby step."  What goes along with that step?  First, knowing what your top priority is.  Of all the things in a collection, some things are inherently a top priority for your institution.  Other things are not top priority, and that is very interesting.  As soon as you rank the things in the collection, you find that some of the items belong in someone else's collection but probably not yours.  You find that some of the items may have intrinsic value, such as a fine collection of 19th century Impressionist paintings, but have nothing to do with your mission of interpreting "the craftsmanship and ingenuity of our early American forbears." (There actually is a museum in New England with that mission statement, and fifteen years ago it agonized over the question of selling off the 19th century European paintings in its vast collection.)

You wrack your brain about finding the top priority for thirty bucks' worth of preservation, and you realize that your mission statement isn't helping you in the task.  It is broad enough to permit you to absorb everything your community wants to get out of the way but not out of sight.  Everywhere you turn for a clue about what is high priority, you run into a brick wall.

On the other side of that wall is an interesting question.  I think it will help transfuse hope back into the prisoner of hopelessness.  What is the social function of this museum?  In other words, how does your historic house, historic landscape, historic farm, or history museum develop the capacity for thinking and the love of association within your town?  The life of a community is based on the qualities of association, how people enrich or torment each other's lives.  A museum or a history enterprise is an expression of communal need for mental activity and social activity.  The things in the institution only matter to the extent that you can deploy them to promote high-quality mental and social activity. 

Many curators might think this idea heresy.  Maybe we're both right!  Give to curators what is their due and give to the people in your community what is their due.  As long as you're only spending thirty bucks on preservation, the task won't exhaust and deplete you.  You will have some time for training, some time for setting priorities, and some time for asking whether things attract the volunteers you need or whether engaging activities have a better chance of doing that.

Even if your museum was wiped out by a tornado tonight, within a year the people in town would have given you more "stuff" for the museum and you'd be back where you are right now.  Since you will never want for "stuff," put your brain power into thinking through your social function and let the "stuff" pile up until you're clear about a vision of what you would do if money were plentiful.  Would you "double the square footage" or "double the quality of the human experience in whatever space we have?"  Always go for quality, distinction, engagement.  Defer any thought of more space until you have a handle on quality experiences.  Become expert at orchestrating experiences.  Be like the most resourceful and underfunded 4th Grade Social Studies teacher.

When you have transformed your organization into an engine of wholesome and interesting learning experiences for all generations, you will be in an excellent position to make sense of the huge problems of preservation and conservation in this field.  There will probably never be an end to the undone preservation chores.  Don't let them get you down.  Do whatever you can manage, and try to think big when you set priorities. If you focus on your institution's social function, you will create plenty of "buzz" in your community, and your institution will benefit and become healthy.